Why employers should control how staff use Facebook

Out-Law Analysis | 27 Jan 2009 | 9:47 am | 3 min. read

OPINION: President Barack Obama had a shock on his first day at work. The man who had run a pioneering campaign using social media to galvanise support couldn't access Facebook – or webmail, or any number of web tools that were central to his campaign.

advert: Social Media Influence, now in its fourth year, is a one-day conference dedicated to the profound changes social media is having on corporate communications, marketing and media. The event will be held March 3rd, 2009 in London.Whitehouse computer security barred access to these tools, and the presidency praised for its 21st century working methods slipped momentarily and involuntarily back into the 20th century.

New York Times (NYT) reporters might have felt a more than usual twang of sympathy for Obama, because they too have had their Web 2.0 wings clipped. A memo just sent to staff tells reporters that they should avoid using Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites in certain ways, even in their personal lives. 

Should we be outraged at this intrusion into employees' personal communications, or angry that they are barred from using new media technologies altogether?

Of course not. In fact in seeking to control the way their staff use new media, both organisations are doing the right thing.

Let's start with the NYT. When the memo was leaked there were murmurings of discontent and opposition to what was seen as interference with reporters' personal lives. But the NYT had very good reason to ask for level heads in online communications.

"Be careful not to write anything on a blog or a personal Web page that you could not write in The Times --­ don't editorialize, for instance, if you work for the News Department," said the NYT's memo to staff. "Anything you post online can and might be publicly disseminated, and can be twisted to be used against you by those who wish you or The Times ill."

The newspaper has every right to ask its employees not to do something in their private life which damages their employer or their own ability to do their job. This is not an over-extension of paternalistic control freakery, it is simple common business sense.

What's more, the reporters who joined the NYT did so knowing that they had certain overall obligations to their profession and employer. From the memo again:

"If you have or are getting a Facebook page, leave blank the section that asks about your political views, in accordance with the Ethical Journalism admonition to do nothing that might cast doubt on your or The Times's political impartiality in reporting the news."

So there is already a demand for ethical journalism to which, presumably, the reporters have all signed up.

As for Obama and the White House's Facebook blocking, it is entirely understandable. Information security surveys tell us time and again that data leakage can be incredibly damaging to an organisation, and that collaborative new media platforms like Facebook, MySpace and the rest are gaping holes in some organisations' information armoury.

The higher up the source of the leakage, the more damaging it is. Who is higher up than the US president?

No doubt the White House policies will change, but they must still be sensitive to the fact that the release of information to uncontrollable, public online environments is a risk. Seemingly innocuous data can, in the wrong hands, become dangerously valuable.

But before anyone starts formulating their own memo banning access to every digital outlet in sight, it is worthwhile thinking about what the circumstances might be in which employers should exercise such control.

Why were these restrictions put in place? To stop employees doing things which damaged the whole organisation and that employee's role in it.

Presidential staffers posting indiscretions or security details online or NYT reporters revealing a political bias are actions which seriously undermine the operation or effectiveness of the whole organisation.

That is a good reason to restrict access or lay down ground rules, and the effect is so great that it even merits controlling people's digital options outside of the workplace, as the NYT did. This is not just about the use of work time or resources, it is about the conduct of people so crucial to an organisation that their behaviour could damage it.

The same cannot be said to be true of stopping a janitor checking email or preventing an accountant from checking who has 'friended' him on Facebook.

It is perfectly acceptable for an organisation to protect its reputation. It should make this clear to anyone joining that organisation whose role will be subject to these controls. Anyone who does not like them is free, at that point, to decline the job offer.

For existing employees it is important to look at company guidance on bringing the organisation into disrepute and, if necessary, to update that guidance. Any updates should be clearly communicated to all affected staff.

If an employer is going to restrict someone's digital freedoms in and out of the workplace they need very good reasons. Those reasons exist, but they had better be carefully formulated and clearly communicated, otherwise the organisation could open itself up to the accusation that it is trying to exert too much control over its employees' lives.

By Simon Horsfield. Simon is an employment law partner at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind OUT-LAW.COM.

OUT-LAW.COM is supporting Social Media Influence 2009. Editor Struan Robertson will be speaking about the legal issues in social marketing.